Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015: a year in music

​Let's start with some good news: there's a new Bowie album on the way. Let's improve on that with more good news: as it's not out until next week, I don't have to worry about it - as far as this review is concerned - for a whole 12 months.

For that I must thank the Jones family, once of Brixton, South London, who saw to it that the boy David was born on January 8, 1947, thus affording the latterday Dame the hook of his 66th birthday for the brilliant subterfuge of releasing Where Are We Now? without warning. Without anywhere near the same secrecy, his next - NEXT! - album, Blackstar, which will appear next Friday on the occasion of his 69th year mostly on this planet. And of what I've heard so far, I'm fairly confident that it will be a shoe-in for WWDBD?'s 2016 hall of fame. But that is, clearly, for another year.

And, so, 2015 - a year in which music, unwittingly, became a focal point for all the wrong reasons. It would, perhaps, be somewhat disproportionate to place the events of November 13 as the fulcrum of the last 12 months in music. After all, this has been a year, like many and in my case, most, in which gigs have been part of my normal routine.

In Paris, my adopted home for the past five years, it's part of everyone's social routine, which is what makes the attack on the Eagles Of Death Metal gig as well as the environs of Le Bataclan an act that continues to cast a pall over 2015's joie de vivre. Because as corny as it might sound to invoke "rock and roll forever" defiance, it had never been more correct.

But let's not overdwell. To do so only panders to the medieval deviants who made such defiance necessary to begin with. Instead, let's celebrate a year in which new music has come thick and fast. So thick and so fast that to do justice to a list of the year' best releases really should be more exhaustive than the 15 you see below. And while this list is more a representation of the new albums I've probably listened to more than any other, it inevitably lacks those which deserve an honorable mention - such as Keith Richards' Crosseyed Heart and Gary Clark Jr's long-awaited The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim.

But, a line must be drawn somewhere, and so, in Miss World order, here are What Would David Bowie Do?'s 2015 platters-that-matter.

I hope some, at least, have made your musical year as much as they have done mine.

15. Laura Marling - Short Movie: The minute someone is compared with John Martyn, I have a tendency to reel in my expectations. Because no one was and, I strongly suspect, will ever be anything like him. Laura Marling has, though, come pretty close, especially from a technical perspective. For this, her fifth album, she made the leap many folkies have done, by migrating from acoustic to electric. In so doing, she didn't look back, resulting in a superbly accomplished album, which ruminates on myriad themes with a varying topography of rock-pop styles.

14. The Church - Further Deeper: With a recent history of trouble and strife (band discord, drug abuse - usual rock'n'roll perils, TBH) the 80s Oz rockers returned with an album that both reflected their travails as well as reminded the world of what a brilliantly charismatic band they still are. Singer and principal songwriter Steve Kilbey's melifluous baritone may have lost some its rigidity, the result of well publicised demons, but it has taken on a Syd Barrett quality that fits perfectly with the band's trademark layers of chorused guitars. A comfortingly familiar album which manages to be far from predictable.

13. Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit And Think And Sometimes I Just Sit: Remaining in the southern hemisphere, we have 2015's debutant of the year. Strumming a Telecaster with the thumb of her left hand, the Sydney-born, Melbourne-based 28-year-old caught the eye and the ear with the stripped-down honesty of the EPs with which she made her recorded debut. With this first album, proper, Barnett drew together her gift for bedsit storytelling and festival-friendly grunge-lite, drawing valid comparisons to Lou Reed in the process.

12. Paul Weller - Saturns Pattern: It would be far too easy to compare Paul Weller and Bruce Springsteen through their shared blue collar backgrounds, but there is a stronger [solid] bond between them in terms of work ethic. Both seem incapable of slowing down. Weller, in particular, appears as restlessly creative as ever, finding yet another new direction to go down, with many more previously untapped influences from his youth to work into an album every bit as consistent as any in his impressive near-40 year recording career.

11. Blur - The Magic Whip: Partly written on tour and recorded on the fly in Hong Kong, Damon Albarn, OBE - another intensely restless creative force - together with Messrs Coxon, James and Roundtree delivered as their first collective effort in 13 years an album of subtle reflection on modern life, which still appears to be rubbish, and apparently dominated by technology. For those of us impartial to English melancholy, Blur gave us in The Magic Whip the sort of cold, autumnal evening of music we can't get enough of.

10. Tame Impala - Currents: While on a brief late-Spring trip to Devon I heard 6 Music's Radcliffe and Maconie play 'Cause I'm A Man and, much like Daft Punk's Get Lucky, I became hooked on a feel-good summer radio hit which made me impatient for the album it would appear on to be released. I wasn't disappointed. Kevin Parker's studio project had hitherto been more of a prog rock band in my view, and yet here was a gloriously bright piece of 80s pop, serving as a reminder that not all influences from that decade are necessarily bad, and in the right hands can actually be good. In Parker's hands, they're exceptional.

9. Foals - What Went Down: If, like me, you took up the guitar as a teenager, one of the first immensely gratifying experiences is playing your maiden power chord. So when your clumsy acoustic guitar gives way to your debut electric-and-amp combo, the power chord becomes the ultimate expression of teenage angst. Rock and roll is reborn. You become Paul Kossoff or Pete Townshend or Angus Young. Foals are hardly teenagers, and theirs is certainly not the music of a previous generation, but the thudding, rifftastic electricity of What Went Down took me back to the first time I heard the likes of Free and The Who. If I had a car, this would be the album I would have willingly spent 2015 driving to, with the volume up as high as it would go.

8. Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - Chasing Yesterday: Face facts, British pop stars, there are few amongst you who can hold a candle to Gallagher for being downright funny. Most pop stars are dour, self-regarding and so driven by angst that humour is unnecessary baggage. Not that Gallagher is merely the class clown: his second album with the High Flying Birds continued to hold him aloft as a supreme songwriter, naturally gifted in melodic ease and retaining just enough reverence for heritage to avoid being the tribute act so many detractors still moronically maintain he is.

7. Alabama Shakes - Sound And Colour: You all know that thing about second albums and difficulty, right? Well nobody informed the cavernously-voiced Brittany Howard and her bandmates, who followed up their truly remarkable debut Boys & Girls with an overwhelmingly good package of understated R&B. Live, they are a force of nature, and the combined material from their first and sophomore releases fuelled one of the gigs of, not only the year, but the decade when I saw them at July's Lucca Summer Festival in Tuscany, on a double-bill with Paolo Nutini.

6. Guy Garvey - Courting The Squall: Ask anyone - people who know him, people who've met him, and then everyone else - and no one has a bad thing to say about Guy Garvey. Not that we should have to find fault all the time, of course. But in any written or recorded interaction with the younger-than-he-looks Elbow frontman, two words crop up consistently: "loveable" and "bear". This does paint him as a hybrid of Phil Collins and Yogi, but if you reluctantly put Garvey's patent likeability to one side for a second, and consider the work he has put in with Elbow over, incredibly, the last 20 years, even the most cold-hearted cynic would have to concede, that theirs is a brand of intelligent pop that transcends festivals, bedsits and middle class dinner parties with delight and lack of offence in equal measure. On Courting The Squall, Garvey gathered up song ideas that had been gathering dust, brought in a few of his Salford muso mates and, with the application of a jazz sensibility, went experimental. And did so with wonderous effect.

5. Richard Hawley - Hollow Meadows: After the extravagant splurge of mesmerising psych-rock that was 2012's Standing On The Sky's Edge, Sheffield's bequiffed bard returned with something of a throwback to his earlier, loving recreation of '50s ballroom balladry. The result is a truly luscious collection of guitar-driven twang with a conscience, immediately accessible, but which draws you inexorably into Hawley's romantic take on the modern world, its ills and thrills included, and it does so more with honey than the vinegar of its predecessor.

4. Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell: Going right back to when I first started buying the NME as a callow youth, I have both embraced what the music press has encouraged me to like and rejected it out of hand. Because that's how it should work. Music may be less of a subjective art as, say, comedy, but it can abruptly split opinion. Yes, I own early Coldplay albums, and I've even paid money to see Adele in concert, but nothing the former produces now interest me, and as for the latter, even my love of the gloomy won't stretch to joining the billions now in posession of 25. All of this is to say that Sufjan Stevens' Carrie & Lowell is an album the music press implored us to buy and, instead of repulsing it, on the stubborn grounds that I make my own taste, I took a punt. And I couldn't have been enamoured mor by the beauty Stevens created from apparent pain, charm from sadness, respect from raw honesty. An absolutely brilliant piece of work.

3. ​Steven Wilson - Hand Cannot Erase: It maddens me that with the consistent quality of songwriting and collective musicianship that the prolific, workaholic Wilson brings to his albums that he isn't a bigger star. Sure, it must be good to be regularly fêted by the prog world and his peers therein, but when the standard is as high as it was on this, his fourth solo album, it is bordering on the criminal that his reward wasn't more than the high chart placings and glowing reviews Hand Cannot Erase. And, as Wilson knows himself, he gets points from me just for the Dead Can Dance reference. A brilliant album combining a dark, somewhat macabre concept with 80s-influenced rock-pop sensibilities. His best yet.

2. Wilco - Star Wars: Just when you thought mainstream rock couldn't turn out something different and interesting, Wilco sneak out an album that makes you realise why you got into music to begin with. Here is the contrarianism that made me appreciate The Beatles'  white album, Bowie and prog rock as a teenager: convention and quirkiness combined in constant experimentation, pushing boundaries without busting them wide open. In a year in which the new Star Wars film seems to have been arriving forever, Wilco released its namesake by surprise online, stunningly underpinning its joyously capricious nature.


1. New Order - Music Complete: Rarely does a band return to whatever it was that made them great to begin with. That's life. Groups with the sort of history, longevity and endurance as New Order, not to mention the musical core that has sustained that reputation, will always end up, to varying degrees of severity, parodying the thing that heralded their arrival. Don't get me wrong - in many respects it's what we want, what we willingly hand over our hard-earned for. The Rolling Stones, I'll wager, are still the greatest rock and roll band in the world, and their latterday output - while obviously not to the same par as their heyday - is still as good, if not better, than most rivals. What made New Order's Music Complete so good, apart from a title that said it all, was how they had not forgotten, or tried to forget, their early essence, that careful balance of rock and dance that made them cool to frug to as cool to listen taking notes to. Here was some knowing reinvention. Actually, the word I'd use is "rejuvinated", reflecting the zest for the craft that they applied in an album that, with familiarity as only a foundation, set about reconnecting the audience with a band that is probably genuiney alone - and therefore unique - in doing what it does.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Special, but up to a point

The vaults of most news organisations contain the obituaries of public figures that are far from dead and, apart from all the normal odds about expiring through random bus/lightning/shark encounters, are unlikely to leave us any time soon.

Seeing as anyone of us could go at any time, these "obits" are written or recorded just in case, and updated as and when there is something notable. For the journalists preparing them for newspapers, television or radio, it is a fairly morbid task, countered by typical journalistic black humour (head over to YouTube and watch the entire episode of Drop The Dead Donkey devoted to GlobeLink updating their obituary library with inevitable calamity).

The reason I bring all this up is that it feels like I've been preparing for José Mourinho's second departure from Chelsea for months. Given the ease with which Roman Abramovich has dispensed with managerial staff for even looking at him the wrong way, Chelsea's relentless descent since the start of the season - from defending Premier League champions to relegation-threatened deadbeats - has carried an inevitability about Mourinho's firing that has gone almost frustratingly unfulfilled.

Amazingly, the Russian has shown restraint, and despite media gossip about how Abramovich couldn't afford to pay Mourinho off, or was too scared, the simple reality is that he has genuinely tried to give Mourinho every opportunity to turn it around. Monday's performance at Leicester City showed that it is beyond repair. If the dressing room relationship hadn't been broken before, it was now. If a moribund set of expensively compensated players were not going to reach deep and perform like they did in the first half of last season, and more pertinently, like they did against the most extraordinary of odds to win in Munich in May 2012, they weren't likely to do so anytime soon under Mourinho.

God knows who they will do it for now. Hiddink, Ramos, Ancelotti - all the usual suspects are being reeled off for an opening that seems all-too familiar: interim coach at Chelsea.

Journalists love a good car crash, and for all those pundits saying that Mourinho is good for business, with his soundbites and sometimes strangled-English quotes, Chelsea's season has been a 20-car pile-up in thick fog with the chief constable declaring it the worst he's ever seen in 30 years as a police officer.

Any motorway disaster needs its 'Patient Zero' - its initial moment of madness, the white van driver changing lanes without looking in his side mirror or the tailgating Belgian trucker behaving as if the rules of the local road don't apply to him. In the case of Chelsea's season, its hard to identify the trigger.

Was it the shattered bodies that returned from an all-too brief summer break? Was it the failure of the club to do any meaningful business in the summer transfer market? Was it the dismal pre-season tour? Was it Mourinho losing it unnecessarily over the medical staff on August 8, and then losing the dressing room with his treatment of Eva Carneiro, an event said to have weighed heavily on Eden Hazard, for one?

Perhaps it was all of these, with each calamity solidifying its predecessor, building up a toxic sediment around the club. It has been a disaster: the Carneiro incident should have been resolved on the spot and the pre-season lethargy should have been mitigated with a better use of the youth on offer (the under-18s beat Huddersfield 6-1 last night - don't tell me there is no hunger at Chelsea Football Club...!). These are things Mourinho himself could have fixed. But he didn't.

Earlier this week I wrote how managers carry the can too often for their players' failings. That is still true. But, as I've also written - ad nauseum - the malaise at Chelsea has been in the players' heads, not in their legs, even if those legs are still shattered from last season. If Chelsea's stars have been toiling, there has been no shortage of fresh young blood on the bench to relieve them with ambition. Mourinho, however, kept them on the bench, instead sticking with the failing Fàbregas, Hazard, Matic, Ivanovich and Costa, even adding to their woes by doing so.

Mourinho was a special one, and still is. He could, now, move to Manchester United and relieve them of that pompous clown van Gaal. We all wish José well. He was an extraordinary manager at Chelsea...when he was being extraordinary. When that expired, and his God complex kicked in, there was never a Plan B, just a rapidly unravelling Plan A. Which may not have been that special at all.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

It's beginning to look a lot like the nightmare before Christmas

Given the December temperatures, there was something decidedly incongruous about the three thousand or so visiting Chelsea supporters in the King Power Stadium last night invoking Bob Marley's Three Little Birds by singing "Baby, don't worry about a thing". The home crowd responded with "Championship, gonna be alright".

Leicester City's fans can more than afford to be cocky, and Chelsea fans should appreciate the gallows humour, if nothing else. Claudio Ranieri's team earned it: their unlikely reverse - relegation threatened at the end of last season - is every bit as remarkable as the position Chelsea now find themselves in. 16th place on the back of nine league defeats is relegation form, and from a team many pundits were expertly predicting back in August would retain the Barclays Premier League title as favourites.

Less than a week ago we were celebrating, sort of, Chelsea's comfortable win over Porto and their progression into the last 16 of the Champions League. Yesterday morning I was bemoaning the fact that UEFA's sticky balls had paired the Blues again with PSG. But, frankly, these are minor irritations.

The modest relief of being in the knockout stages of the Champions League - which, believe it or not, Chelsea's Jeckyll & Hyde act could go on to win - was severely undermined by not only the way they lost to Leicester (the remarkable Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez not withstanding) but by the abject, rancid mood that José Mourinho brought on his team in the aftermath, publicly berating Oscar, Eden Hazard and Diego Costa and talking of being "betrayed" that all his hard preparation had been ignored.

If Costa, in particular, had an issue with Mourinho, or if Hazard - whose early "injury" was another bizarre episode involving the Belgian (remember Swansea City on the first day of the season?) - is to be tempted to Paris or Madrid, then such managerial pychology will only add more risk to Mourinho's already precarious state.

I've now lost count of the times since August 8 that I've written how something in the minds of Chelsea's manager and players has to change. It still hasn't. When the fixture list came out in July, you would have put decent money on Chelsea winning at home to Norwich and Bournemouth, or away to Leicester. In fact, you should have put money on those being defeats - I shudder to think what odds you'd have received.

When a manager gets sacked, it's always too easy for the players to bleat about letting him down and "we should have done more". In Mourinho's case, I just wonder whether he's had the capability in that big, brilliant footballing brain of his to process his team's obvious physical and mental declines. Why hasn't he made more use of the youthful exuberence of players like Kenedy and Loftus-Cheek, along with the myriad others out on loan? Why has he laboured on with Fàbregas when anyone with resonable vision has been able to see that his passes don't connect anymore...and that was his main mission in life.

You could say that Leicester's win last night was simply in the script, that somehow the Gods of Football decreed that the team managed by the man Chelsea sacked in favour of the man Chelsea now have in charge again should win. Because that, like dodgy Champions League draws, makes for better headlines, better banter and better studio conversations.

The reality is that Ranieri has found the formula and the players. Mourinho has just lost it. It may be misfortune, or it maybe the result of poor choices made by the club, but despite my belief that managers often unfairly carry the blame, the only logical conclusion you can reach from Chelsea's inexplicable - and very real - drop into relegation danger is that it is down to one man, a man who last night said "all last season I did phenomenal work and brought them to a level more than they really are", who wanted to single out his defenders for their movement around Vardy, and even had the temerity to have a pop at Leicester's ball-boys as "a disgrace to the Premier League".

With the exception of notable efforts against Spurs away and Porto at home Chelsea have just not been good enough in almost every department. Asmir Begovic has made a fine stand-in for Thibaut Courtois in goal, but both have been let down by their defenders too many times; in the midfield, Matic has been half the holding player he was last season, and Fàbregas lacking in pace, passing and perserverence; up front, Costa has been out of position and often out of order, while Hazard and the permanently Bambi-like Oscar have clearly been wanting for confidence. Only Willian has at least shown, to quote Harold Shand, "a little bit more than an 'ot dog, know what I mean?".

Football today is too quick to point to the manager. Chelsea has, in its recent past, been too quick to fire theirs. José Mourinho, and his three-year plan, was intended to establish a "dynasty". Where is that now? After one season as "the little horse", the second as the front-runner, for the third Chelsea are now looking more like a lame donkey giving out-of-season rides on Blackpool beach.

Even I have been amazed by Roman Abramovich's restraint, and as much as I loathe football's propensity for sacking managers after only the slightest of dips, I don't see the Chelsea owner having any alternative now.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Yawn... Would it kill UEFA to have a bit of variety?

Barcelona meet Arsenal: round of 16 draw in full

So, midway through December and What Would David Bowie Do? has been abruptly woken from its pre-Crimbo slumber by, of all things, the draw for the last 16 of Champions League.

For, amongst the pairings - with Arsenal-v-Barcelona standing out as the tie of the round - Chelsea are once again matched with Paris Saint-Germain. Yup, couldn't make it up. Obviously there was always a one-in-eight chance of Chelsea drawing PSG, the team who knocked them out of last season's competition in a grumpy encounter at Stamford Bridge, in which PSG came from behind twice to win on away goals, one of them scored by former defender David Luiz.

Some suggest that Chelsea's malaise this season can be traced back to that match on March 11 - even though they went on to win the Premier League quite comprehensively two months later. Luiz had, of course, been part of the Chelsea team that had beaten PSG 2-0 at the Bridge in the quarter-final the season previously.

Playing PSG for a third consecutive season could, of course, be simply a mathematical inevitability when you're down to the last 16 and in Pot 1 of the draw. But at risk of 'doing a José', there's something suspicious about it, not helped by the stinking climate of mistrust that currently pervades football at its highest levels.

I've had a similar view of Chelsea's endless encounters with Liverpool in the Champions League over the last decade or so, especially in seasons where there have been FA Cup and League Cup ties, on top of the Premier League, pairing them like the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington Generals (the Blues and the Reds met eight times in the 2004-2005 season alone).

No doubt elsewhere in the blogosphere there is now a similar post from an Arsenal fan complaining about being drawn against reigning European Cup holders, Barcelona, who are currently in imperious form and 5/2 favourites to win the trophy again, and who beat Arsenal in the 2006 Final and again in the 2010 quarter-final (6-3 on aggregate...).

Of course, both Chelsea and Arsenal should be grateful not to be continuing their European adventures this season in unpronouncable Nordic climes on Thursday nights, and Chelsea fans, in particular, should be grateful that it is 'only' PSG.

Privately, I'm sure the clubs are looking forward to repeat business, and the obvious spice hasn't been lost on the clubs' respective social media teams. But as a fan, I'm not. Tempting as it is to think the Champions League draw is rigged, I do think there should be a better method of ensuring that the odds don't work in favour of predictability.

Arsenal-Barca and Chelsea-PSG, not to mention Roma-Real Madrid, Juventus-Bayern Munich, and Dynamo Kiev-Manchester City amongst the other highlights, might be good for TV ratings and UEFA's sponsors, but I'm sure that many fans would have preferred to see the last 16 mixed up much better. Why couldn't Chelsea face Juve, who are currently rolling back into the Serie A title race after an indifferent start to their fourth consecutive defence of the Scudetto. Why couldn't Arsenal encounter Roma, last-season's domestic runners-up in Italy and who've been showing the Milan teams a thing or two in recent seasons?

Something truly suggests that the drawing process for the Champions League is quite literally a load of balls.